George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, warns that President Obama’s upcoming inaugural address may be “a bit of a snooze.” He says most inaugural addresses are. Obama “isn’t a phrasemaker,” because he is “too complex, too nuanced, too elusive, and too careful, for words that stick.” Packer doubts that even the “signature phrase” from Obama’s first inaugural address–“a new era of responsibility”–will “enter the ages.” About that, he is undoubtedly right.
Packer notes, however, that Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, JFK, Reagan, and Bush 43 all gave inaugural addresses that included memorable phrases. Since it seems unlikely that all those presidents were significantly less complex, nuanced, elusive, and careful than Obama, we need an alternate theory to explain the point of Packer’s piece. Let’s review what he wrote about Obama’s first inaugural address, which is somewhat different from what one might expect, given Packer’s current comments.